Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


Scary Folk

Genre is a useful category.  It can be misused, however.  Straightjacketing a piece of literature, music, or film can lead not only to confusion, but to constraining creativity itself.  Nevertheless, the category of Folk Horror is certainly expansive enough for a book-length treatment, such as Adam Scovell has given it.  Unless you’ve read quite a bit about the subject you might wonder what folk horror is.  A good part of Scovell’s work is definitional—providing the reader to an answer to that very question.   Although it has earlier roots, folk horror was initially a British genre that became particularly noticeable in the late sixties and early seventies.  It comprised movies and television programs that dwell on specific aspects of the landscape—particularly the rural—and isolation within it.

What I find particularly compelling about folk horror is that it is often based on religion.  In the countryside you encounter people who think differently about things.  Believe differently.  Their convictions are enforced upon the stranger who may be there by design or by accident.  Ironically the genre largely emerged in a nation that prides itself for its role in civilized behavior.  It speaks volumes about belief.  Civilization has produced more refined strains of religion, but on its own religion will tend to grow wild, even as the weeds in your yard are distantly related to the cereal grains we cultivate.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Fans of horror can name them off, but even those who don’t care for the genre know the kinds of belief this indicates.

Not all folk horror is about religion, of course.  It can be rural ways in general.  No matter how you classify it, most people can identify Deliverance and the danger it implies about being far from civilization where those who live in the woods can do as they please.  Scovell delves into the urban settings of folk horror as well—most of his examples are British—because it is possible to hide in the city also.  Although the genre reached a high point in the 1970s, it didn’t die out.  The book ends with consideration of some more modern examples, such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch.  The problem, as those of us who write about film know, is that just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean future examples won’t change the picture.  The Lighthouse and Midsommar were both released in 2019, after the book was published.  And they demonstrate that the scary folk haven’t gone away.


Highgate Cemetery Again

Vampires can distort your thinking.  For example, whenever I hear of Highgate Cemetery in London, my mind immediately goes to the Highgate Vampire.  (There was somewhat of a comment kerfuffle on that topic right here on this blog some years back that resulted in several comments being removed.)  Highgate is the amazing final resting place of a remarkable number of famous people.  Still, when I visited a few years back I couldn’t get the vampire out of my mind.  (A friend of mine lives a short walk from the cemetery and that made the visit possible.)  This all came rushing back when I saw a book on Highgate Cemetery up for review on Reading Religion.  (And hey, Nightmares with the Bible has been available there for free, for any interested takers!)

Given my current vocation, writing actual book reviews is considered conflict of interest.  More’s the pity, since that’s how I often managed to get ahold of expensive books back in the day.  I’m pretty sure the book advertised (edited by Marie-Therese Mader, Alberto Saviello, and Baldassare Scolari) has nothing to do with the vampire, but I can think of it no other way.  Highgate is an architectural marvel for a necropolis.  It is spooky, inspiring, and impressive.  When something happens in a place, even if the facts are in dispute, it takes on an atmosphere that reflects such happenings.  At least that’s the way it feels for Highgate.  I’d heard about the vampire incident before visiting, but didn’t have the details.  Besides, you’re only permitted in on guided tours and the docents don’t point out such things.

Nevertheless, having been there I still have an interest in the cemetery itself.  It’s odd in a way.  Nobody I know personally is buried there.  No ancestors, as far as I know.  It’s the sense of place.  I’ve written about this many times before—there are numinous spaces in the world.  Science may deny it, but even scientists feel it.  Some places transport you somewhere beyond just the physical dimensions of where your body happens to be at the moment.  Cemeteries are filled with the memories of lives past.  They remind us that our time is limited, and that we too will cross that numinous threshold some day.  We all contribute.  Well, I can’t review the Highgate book and I can’t afford to buy it.  I nevertheless suspect that there’s nothing about the vampire in it.  I’m sure it’s my thinking that has been distorted by vampires.


Caring for the Future

Some people have it really bad.  Living in war-torn countries, many former academics find themselves scrounging for a living.  In the United States academics tend to have it good—at least those who get jobs do.  In my line of work it’s not unusual to hear them complaining of overwork, or of various aspects of academic life that are a strain.  I know that can be true—I’ve been there.  However, a recent story about Adnan Al Mohamad on iNews, tells how the Syrian professor had to flee and become a waiter and farm helper in Turkey.  Until CARA found out.  CARA is a British charity—Council for At-Risk Academics.  They were able to secure Al Mohamad a university post so that he could achieve his potential.

Of course, academia isn’t perfect, as my many colleagues who’ve succeeded in it can tell you.  But it is good for the world.  Those of us taught to think deeply about a subject often feel what might be called a moral obligation to pass it on.  Interestingly, in the “developed world” academic positions are on the decline and education is seen as an expensive option instead of the way forward.  I may have been sidelined, but I’ve been watching this happen for decades now.  Instead of organizations like CARA (many academics are at risk) those encouraged to go on by their teachers and colleagues end up disappearing in obscurity with crippling bills to pay for many years down the road.  There are no safety nets and western society has decided education is a luxury rather than the path to a better future.

Somewhere along the line, as progress became equated with electronic gadgetry, we lost the desire to think deeply.  Books are “products” that can be thrown onto a plastic screen and soon forgotten after read.  We can gossip 24/7 through social media and never spend hours delving deep into a subject.  We can move the economy ahead without stopping to think about the consequences.  The world needs organizations like CARA.  Better yet, governments should take on that role.  Politics for some (most, of a particular party) is a means of enriching oneself rather than bettering the society that allows them to do so.  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if education were the number one priority?  Isn’t that what a rational society would do?  Creating a world in which those who’ve personally invested in continuous learning could share it?  Instead, we live in a world where academics increasingly require rescue.


Unconventional Demon

In my book Holy Horror I limited my discussion to fairly widely available and well-known films.  Part of the reason for this is that nobody can watch all horror movies and for those of us who work, there’s just limited time.  All of the films are at least American co-produced, most of them American productions.  The one exception to that is The Wicker Man.  I couldn’t bear to leave that particular movie out.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was classified as the newly coined “folk horror.”  Another film, released two years earlier was the strangely titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  It’s a strange but competent British horror film that has an eighteenth-century village falling prey to a demon that is accidentally plowed up in a field.

It is a film that could’ve been included in Holy Horror.  Indeed, the Bible appears in it and one of the adult characters is the local curate.  As the children are succumbing to a Satanism that’s raising a demon, he tries to teach them their Bible lessons.  Like Village of the Damned, the horror here centers on the children.  Flaunting the reverend’s rules, they play in the woods, raising the Devil.  Almost literally.  The demon they summon is called Behemoth.  Perhaps surprisingly, the judge actually saves the day in this one.  At first he’s convinced that the age of superstition is over and insists that it not be brought back.  He learns, however, that the demon is real and deals with it by rather physical means.  Who is Behemoth?

The word translates rather literally to “beasts.”  In the book of Job Behemoth is the land-bound companion to Leviathan, the two monsters that God cites to demonstrate his superiority over mere mortals.  As time wore on into the middle ages Behemoth and Leviathan were recast as demons, although it’s pretty clear that the book of Job doesn’t present them that way.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that demons aren’t fully formed beings in the ancient imagination.  Since the Bible says so little about them, ideas were drawn from folklore and other sources to flesh out these somewhat amorphous entities.  Descriptions of The Blood on Satan’s Claw quite often state that the children of the village are possessed.  If so, it is quite a different form of possession than will become standard two years later with the release of The Exorcist.  It is fitting, I suppose, for folk horror to have a folk demon for its antagonist.


Contains Cookies

In the early days of this blog I used to get regular reactions from other bloggers.  This was back before I started the long commute to New York City and when I actually had a little spare time on my hands.  I always enjoyed the interactions, but followers eventually dropped away and I now often get no responses to my posts at all.  That’s why I was thrilled when two recent posts came together with a response one of my faithful readers sent.  I’d written about keeping books neat, along with a piece related to ancient food, when a friend pointed me to the story of a cookie found in a 1529 Cambridge copy of Augustine.  According to the piece on Delish, the cookie was left in the book about half a century ago and had only now just been discovered.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Now, like most readers of religious studies, I have opinions about Augustine that aren’t pristine.  Still, I respect books.  I suspect all the bakery jokes necessary have been made about this particular bookmark, but what strikes me as odd is that nobody discovered a cookie placed in a book when I was less than ten years old, until now.  Let that say what you will—Augustine still sells wildly in translation, of course.  Not too many individuals go back to the source, however, at least not reading as far as the cookie.  I don’t know about Cambridge, but Edinburgh used to have books from the seventeenth century on the open stacks in the New College library.  I’m sure the older volumes weren’t frequently consulted.  And I’m not the one to point a finger; I have no catalogue of my own books so I have to remember what I already have.

Books aren’t a great investment, financially.  I remember back when Antiques Roadshow was all the rage.  Every episode I saw where someone brought a really old book led to certain disappointment.  No matter how rare, the value was measured in hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.  Those of us who invest in books do so for different reasons.  Our money is being exchanged for knowledge, learning, and thinking.  Back when Amazon used to give out bookmarks with each purchase one had a quote from Erasmus, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”  We are kindred spirits it seems.  Buy books and you’ll grow in wisdom, but you may go hungry.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Conflict Management

Conflict has come to dominate the twenty-first century in an unhealthy way.  No longer do religions, political parties, or even scholars of different disciplines want to try to see it from somebody else’s point of view.  Such “I’m rightism” is distressing, given that the greatest minds in history always left some room for doubt.  Einstein tried not to say too much about God, but his occasional references left some space for admitting he just didn’t know.  He was following closely in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, who, ironically and iconically stands as one of the founding fathers of empiricism.  I say “ironically” because his real driving interests, as became clear only after his death, were religious.  With the science and religion conflict paradigm, it took a long time for many to admit that Isaac Newton was fascinated by religion.

A story in The Guardian recently noted that Newton’s unpublished notes on pyramidology have gone on auction.  These papers are even further indications of just how much religion mattered in the mind of the man who gave us a clockmaker God who wound up the universe and left it to run according to scientific principles.  My wish isn’t to cast any aspersions on Newton.  No, quite the opposite.  I wonder if we mightn’t use his wide-ranging interests to raise a relevant question: why do we see religion unworthy of attention while science, because it can be “proven,” is all we really need?  Especially since scientifically-based hypotheses about the origins of religion tell us that human beings need it.

Admittedly Newton was just as human as the rest of us.  Perhaps far more intelligent than most, but still human.  The humanities are the part of the human curriculum that has been under duress for many years at “universities.”  As business interests and money have taken on larger and larger roles in how schools conceptualize themselves, the humanities—which don’t make money—are undervalued and cut.  Capitalism takes no prisoners.  Education that has bought into that paradigm is bound to overlook certain facts.  Newton’s “arcane” interests were well hidden for a couple of centuries because who wants to think of the great rationalist as beholden to such a paltry thing as religion?  We’d rather keep our eyes firmly closed.  A conflict paradigm seems the better way to eradicate this troubling, so very human, aspect of even geniuses.  As long as there’s money to be made conflict will be the reigning model. 


Preserving Culture

When I travel (remember travel?) I try to visit the places of famous writers.  It doesn’t matter much whether I’ve read a lot of their material; I know kindred spirits when I feel them.  Last summer—the one before the pandemic—I had to make a business trip to Oxford.  Now Oxford has a long, long list of literary illuminati, and I didn’t have much free time.  My hotel, however, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the house of J. R. R. Tolkien.  One patch between meetings, I wandered over to the house.  It’s behind a high wall, so you can’t see much.  Like most European private homes, it isn’t ostentatious—over here we like to make it obvious when we’re wealthy.  In any case, I stood as long as a stranger can comfortably stand outside someone else’s house and tried to commune with the spirit of the former occupant.

Just the other day I noticed a New York Times headline that stated a movement is afoot in merry old England to purchase Tolkien’s house to make it a museum.  Although there’s no scientific way to prove it, people are somehow connected to the places they live.  There’s no other sensation like returning to your home town.  If, for some strange reason, anyone wishes to recall me after I’m gone (perhaps my pen name will take off someday), they’ll find precious little.  Not one of my pre-college homes still stands.  Not that that’s that unusual in the low rent district.  Still, when I visit my hometown, small as it is, almost nothing of me remains but it still feels like I belong.

I can’t say that I felt much other than my own awe at standing outside Tolkien’s house.  It’s on a residential street, and people were driving and walking by.  I was the only one who seemed to be hanging about.  Probably a bit suspicious-looking wearing a tweed jacket and in general appearing like a displaced academic.  Much of the tourism industry, however, is based on the draw of certain locations because someone famous lived there.  We want to be in touch with them.  Show our respects, perhaps.  If visiting Oxford weren’t always a work occasion for me, I could quite enjoy wandering its literary haunts and ending up for a leisurely afternoon spent in Blackwells.  We congregate in such places for a reason.  I’ve lost track of all the authors’ homes I’ve visited over the years.  Each time, I’m compelled to say, I’m glad someone thought to preserve them.


In Black

When autumn rolls around my hankering for gothic literature ratchets up.  It’s really my gothic sensibilities that make me watch horror films, seeking some kind of transcendence.  Some time ago I heard about the movie The Woman in Black, but I’ve never seen it.  I learned about the novel by Susan Hill, on which it’s based, and decided to check out the written form.  (I almost always like the book better than the movie anyway.)  The story is indeed moody, set in, as these stories often are, a remote part of the coast of England.  A lonely house cut off by the tide.  A hidden past full of secrets.  The plot is one of a vengeful ghost, and therefore the whole is somewhat supernatural.

I couldn’t help comparing it to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is also set on the coast of England, and also features a house cut off by the tides.  The storylines are quite different beyond that, but it is often the setting that makes gothic tales so, well, gothic.  The Woman in Black builds up the story slowly, intimating that something is wrong near the start, but not really giving too much away until near the end.  It isn’t really the conclusion, however, that a gothic reader is after, as much as the feeling.  Being immersed in a spooky setting where you’re not sure what’s going on.  There’s a kind of release in that.

I’ve often tried to figure out why this type of story appeals to me.  It’s certainly something to do with my childhood.  We didn’t live in a very gothic place.  My hometown was working-class normal, it seemed to me.  When we moved into the first apartment I remember, the setting did become gothic to an extent.  It was an older building that still had gas jets jutting through the walls from the days before electricity.  One of the bedrooms was painted black.  There was a huge crack in the linoleum in the hall that had the potential to trip you if you weren’t paying attention.  It was there that I first became aware of liking gothic settings.  It was the place I discovered Dark Shadows and began to find it strangely homelike.  Many of us, even with less-than-ideal childhoods, often look back to them with a kind of happiness that we just can’t seem to attain as adults.  Mine included some gothic elements, and reading novels like The Woman in Black takes me back there, if only for a little while.


Being Equal

With all that’s been happening lately—as 2020 shudders along—we find ourselves at the equinox.  For some of us the weather has already been unseasonably cool, feeling like mid-October rather than September.  It stands as a reminder that the wheel of nature continues to turn, despite human foibles and plans.  Some trees have begun to sense the change and have started their winter fast while others keep their green to suck the last possible sugar from the sun.  Days have been getting shorter since late June, of course, but now the drama will increase until the winter solstice has us in the dark for much of the time.  It all depends on where you live, but for me the temperate zones have always been home.

I suspect our various predilections toward the oughtness of the world depend in large measure on what we experienced in childhood.  I knew winter before I ever experienced summer and the transitional seasons have always been my favorites.  The idea that we can take more time and reflect, it seems to me, mirrors what happens in autumn.  It’s cooler, so we spend time indoors a bit more.  Some years that doesn’t kick in until later, when the heat is on and there’s a coziness to a house that’s been left to nature’s fever all summer.  Windows are shut and locked.  Artificial warmth reminds us that we can find some solace inside.  Meanwhile the trees show us the proper way to face harsh conditions, and yet half a year from now we’ll be eagerly watching for buds.  The Celts, temperate zone dwellers, thought of this change as the wheel of the year, slowly turning.

From where I sit in my study, with south and west-facing windows, I watch the path of the sun.  Having worked in a cubicle with no outside windows for years, I was always disoriented at the end of the day.  Now I can watch and begin to understand.  The difference is really striking if you have a single place from which to watch it unfold.  The sun is so much higher in the sky in July that it’s evident we’ve entered a new phase now.  Instead of being overhead at noon, the shining orb rolls more to the south, sending blinding rays directly through my window.  When it reaches the west (where it will, before long, sink before touching that window) I know the work day is over.  It’s no wonder our ancient ancestors kept this transition with holidays we’ve long sacrificed to capitalism.  I can still, however, see the changes and appreciate them for what they are.


Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.


Just the Beginning

It occurs to me that my post on Sunday may have been a touch cryptic.  (I can be naughty at times.)  Horror Homeroom was good enough to publish a piece I’d written about the movie Midsommar, a film that got its hooks into me earlier this year.  Here’s the link in case you’d like to read it (it’s free): http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/midsommar-and-cross-quarter-day-horror/.  It’s not an article using the Bible and horror as in yesterday’s post, but rather it is an exploration of the broader relationship between horror and religion.  The origin of religion has long been a fascination, and the more I look into the connection with what makes us afraid, the more I find in common.  But why midsummer when summer’s only just beginning?

Ancient peoples in temperate zones, according to the records they left behind, carefully observed the change of seasons.  Without a tilted, spinning globe as a model the science of the time (which was likely their religion) suggested that the heavenly bodies were migratory.  If you use raw observation that’s what seems to be the case.  Now that I sit in the same office every day with a south and a west window, it becomes very clear how the sun shifts over the course of the year.  In the winter it seems to be on a journey far to the south.  Religions of such science would want to know, of course, when it would start coming back.  The years were divided into segments—we still recognize four of them in our seasons although, in truth, they are merely gradual changes that take place in the weather as the earth’s tilt moves our hemisphere toward or away from the sun.

Midsummer was a northern European festival to celebrate the longest day.  Whether this is the start of summer or the middle of summer is merely a matter of interpretation.  The film Midsommar plays on the disorienting long span of daylight in northern Sweden.  Without the dark to guide us, sleep and the regular rhythms of daily life can become difficult.  When the people believe the old religion, well, let your imagination run wild.  Horror films often lurk in these transitional times of the year.  We tend to associate them with Halloween, but there’s enough to be afraid of right now.  Not all horror has religious components, of course.  Nevertheless it has been there from the beginning, from when van Helsing pulled out a crucifix to frighten off Dracula.  And it continues, in perhaps more sophisticated ways, even in the broad daylight.


Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.


Begging Your Question

I still remember when I first consciously heard it.  The phrase “begging the question,” I mean.  I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions.  I asked my advisor what the phrase meant.  “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied.  I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them.  Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook.  The concept is subtle, but important.  That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”

I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job.  I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time.  Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out.  Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question?  Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought.  Precision in thinking is difficult work.  It can give you a headache.  We all fail sometimes.  Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society.  It’s much easier to beg the question.  Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?

I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions.  In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there.  One of them an American.  It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma.  I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.”  Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly.  Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking.  And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.


Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.